In Peru, Jonathan Torrey sits with children drawing pictures for next year's t-shirt pocket.
Some people wear their heart on their sleeve. Brothers Jonathan and Alex Torrey wear theirs on their pocket.
“We weren't happy punching in and out at our 9-to-5s,” says Jonathan, whose post-UGA career took him to international finance jobs in the continental U.S., Mexico, Brazil and Puerto Rico. Alex, currently out of town, studied economics and marketing at UGA. “We wanted more; we had to do more. We wanted to create change for the better. So, we quit, moved back to Athens and started Umano.”
Umano—Italian for “human”—is part clothing company, part quest to improve worldwide education by donating 51 percent of its profits to schools in impoverished countries. Why 51 percent?
“The extra one percent is a constant reminder to put doing good ahead of doing well,” says Jonathan.
For the company part, the clothing is "done well": 100 percent made in the U.S.A. from high-quality, eco-friendly ProModal, a new sustainably grown botanic fabric. The material is so soft, it wowed everyone they introduced it to at this year’s Music Midtown in Atlanta. But the bigger picture of Umano “doing good” is revealed in the small pocket art on every top they sell: a drawing by the young students of the impoverished communities Umano helps.
With guidance from family and friends in Mexico and Latin America, the Torrey brothers personally chose schools in Mexico and Peru that lack the most basic of material necessities, but have enthusiasm for learning. Like a scene from "Little House on the Prairie," their first partner school in Mexico is a single room with two teachers, and the students, from ages one-and-a-half to 11 years old, walk to it from surrounding communities that don’t have roads. The Umano funding improves the kids’ learning environment literally from the ground up—from covering dirt floors with floorboards to repairing leaky roofs—so the kids can concentrate on their studies.
“We focus on improving basic education by improving basic goods and services,” says Jonathan. “We're not talking about MacBooks in every classroom—yet. We're talking about making sure every kid has at least something to draw or write with and a place to sit down, and a working bathroom nearby. The idea is to better the learning environment to unlock massive hidden potential.”
Their first school teaches only children ages up to 11 years old, at which point the child either drops out to help the family work, or goes to a more advanced school a long bus ride away. Umano works to better prepare the child for the difficult task of continuing, so he or she won’t give up.
“Our parents are both teachers, and we've been fortunate to travel a lot,” says Jonathan. “We met kids all over the world who don't have access to the most basic education, but they certainly still have big dreams. They inspired us. We believe that if we can better the learning environment and give kids a chance at a basic education, they’ll be able to help themselves succeed. That's very important for us. We're not here to give handouts, we're here to empower kids to create their own paths to prosperity.”
Considering how valuable 51 percent of profits is to a start-up company—before founding Umano, they constantly asked themselves, "How can we maximize social value and be profitable?"—the Torrey brothers make sure every penny that goes toward the schools counts. This first year helped them learn better efficiency in cost and production, such as donated American goods versus expensive shipping, and using all local labor versus local labor with shipped-in assistance.
Then there’s the fun part: creating the pocket art that connects the clothing to the cause.
“We personally know each pocket artist,” says Jonathan, who, with Alex, sat down with the kids, gave them crayons and paper, and asked them questions about themselves while they drew. “We try to get something that interests the kids that will communicate and appeal to the U.S. consumer.”
When asked what her favorite animal is that she sees around the village, 11-year-old Andrea drew a bird, which graces this year’s pockets. The question of what he wants to be when he grows up led to 11-year-old Daniel’s pocket drawing of shapes, because he likes math. The Umano website (www.umano.com) tells the personal story of each child artist, such as the math-liking Daniel wanting to grow up to be a lawyer because he “wants to help innocent people.” The current 2012 line features five designs from their first school in Mexico, while next year’s line is planning to feature designs from schools in Peru and Mexico.
“We want to eventually include schools in the U.S.,” says Jonathan. “We feel that since we’re beginning and our resources are very limited, we can provide a marginal benefit in Latin America that’s much greater than what we can do in the U.S. As we grow, we definitely are focused on the U.S. consumer. We are very aware that U.S. education is a priority, we just need to get to the point where we can do something that’s meaningful.”
Enthusiastic about showing their “pocket art” supporters where the Umano funds are going, the Torreys will post video updates of the 2013 round of the schools’ improvement on their website, where people can also purchase the shirts online (available in town at Community).
“We want to tap into people like us, young professionals who are fashion-conscious and socially conscious,” says Jonathan. “People that want to be a part of something bigger than themselves. A brand. A movement that creates change for the better. By rocking our pockets you empower a kid. It's a great way of telling the world you're a do-gooder with style.”
“I love my Umano shirt,” says Avid Bookshop owner Janet Geddis. “I’m a sucker for really soft material, so as soon as I felt it I knew I wanted it. I wear it at least once a week and am always scared I'll accidentally toss it in the dryer and shorten its life.” She adds, “And the cause makes it that much nicer.”
With their line of clothing, the Torrey brothers join the legion of musicians, artists and artisans in Athens who endevour to send social consciousness into the rest of the world. It not only feels good, it makes you feel good.